The latter part of Parashat Tetzaveh describes the procedure that was to be followed for the formal consecration of Aharon and his sons as kohanim. This procedure, which was repeated for seven days, included the offering of a series of sacrifices, the final of which was the eil ha-miluim – a ram brought by Aharon and his sons. God commanded Moshe that after slaughtering this ram, before sprinkling some of its blood on the altar as was done for normal sacrifices, he was to place some of the blood on the kohanim’s earlobes, and on their right thumbs and right big toes (29:20). Then, after sprinkling the blood on the altar, Moshe was to take some of the blood from the altar, together with the shemen ha-mischa (anointing oil), and sprinkle the mixture on the kohanim and on their priestly garments (29:21). Thereafter, Moshe was to offer the ram’s fats, along with some of the bread that accompanied this special offering, on the altar (29:22-25). The rest of the meat was then eaten by Aharon and his sons, with one portion given to Moshe to eat.
Chizkuni comments that this marks the only instance of sacrificial blood being used for a ritual after it was sprinkled on the altar. When it comes to all other sacrifices, the obligations vis-à-vis the sacrificial blood are considered complete once the blood is sprinkled on the altar, and the blood is not then used for any other purpose. The eil ha-miluim sacrifice was unique in that some blood was taken from the altar after it was sprinkled, in order to consecrate Aharon and his sons. The reason, Chizkuni explains, is because this process was intended to “bind” the kohanim to the altar. By taking some blood from the altar and sprinkling it on the kohanim, the kohanim became linked to the altar. Chizkuni adds that this was necessary to signify that only Aharon and his sons – and their descendants – were chosen as God’s exclusive attendants, and nobody else was granted this privilege.
Additionally, however, this symbolic “binding” of the kohanim to the altar might also assume halakhic significance, establishing that the kohanim now became, in a sense, an extension of the altar.
This notion can be seen in an answer given to the question raised by the Sha’agat Aryeh (96) as to why kohanim, when partaking of sacrificial meat, were not permitted to eat the gid ha-nasheh – the sciatic nerve. Although the consumption of the gid ha-nasheh is forbidden for all Jews, an exception should seemingly be made in the case of kohanim eating the meat of sacrifices, which fulfills a mitzva (“ve-akhlu otam asher kupar bahem” – 29:33; see Rambam, Sefer Ha-mitzvot, asei 89). In light of the principle of “asei docheh lo ta’aseh” – the fulfillment of an affirmative command supersedes a conflicting prohibition – it would seem that the mitzva of eating the meat of a sacrifice would override the gid ha-nasheh prohibition, such that kohanim should be allowed to eat this part of a sacrifice. However, the Sha’agat Aryeh shows from the Gemara that this is not the case. The Chazon Ish (Y.D. 214) suggested answering that just as food which is forbidden for consumption may not be offered on the altar, such food may likewise not be eaten by the kohanim as part of their consumption of sacrifices. The rules governing the kohanim’s consumption of sacrifices must follow the rules governing the altar’s consumption of sacrifices, and thus the kohanim may not eat any food forbidden to be placed on the altar, even if we could, technically, apply the rule of “asei docheh lo ta’aseh.”
The concept underlying this explanation, as noted and discussed by Rav Shlomo Fisher in Beit Yishai – Derashot (p. 381), is that the kohanim are considered just like the altar with respect to sacrifices. They consume the sacrifices not as regular human beings, but rather as an extension, so-to-speak, of the altar. Quite possibly, Rav Fisher suggests, the source for this concept is Chizkuni’s observation regarding the blood of the eil ha-miluim sacrifice. The placement of this blood bound the kohanim to the altar in the sense that they were now considered extensions of the altar, such that their consumption of sacrifices is akin to the altar’s consumption of sacrifices.
Interestingly enough, the Ralbag explained this verse much differently, claiming that in truth, no blood of the eil ha-miluim was taken after it was sprinkled on the altar. When the Torah requires taking “from the blood that is on the altar,” this refers – according to the Ralbag – to the blood which remained in the container after some blood was sprinkled on the altar. The Ralbag found it inconceivable that blood would be taken and sprinkled after it had been sprinkled on the altar, to the extent that he offered a strained reading of the verse to avoid such a conclusion.